11/12/14 by Matthew S. Vandriak
Just over a month into the 2014 NHL season and we've had 7 suspensions issued. Overall that number is down from this point last season, when 11 suspensions were issued. 5 of those suspensions issued up to this point last season were due to illegal checks to an opposing players head. So less than 50%. So far this season of those 7 suspensions, 5 are due to illegal checks to an opposing players head, or 72%.
The NHL put Rule 48.1 into the rule book prior to last season. The rule declares an illegal check to the head as "a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable." As tends to be the norm when a new rule is put in place in a professional sport, it usually takes a season for the players to get used to it. So why is it, that while suspensions are down so far this season, the percentage of those suspensions for violating Rule 48.1 are up?
Hockey is a fast paced sport that's full of contact. So when you have players aggressively moving towards one and other at a high rate of speed on an enclosed ice surface, collisions are going to happen. That takes the accidental aspect out of it. So that could explain boarding or checking a player from behind. But it still doesn't explain hitting an opposing player in the head, especially if the rule is defined that the contact to the head was avoidable. So why is this still occurring at such a high frequency when the rule has been in place for over a season now, and especially since players know the consequences of concussions? What can the NHL do to decrease illegal head contact?
Well first, what the NHL has already done may have indirectly impacted why illegal checking remains an issue. In the NHL's attempt to make it's product more politically correct by putting more restrictive rules in place to prevent fighting, the NHL has taken the onus upon itself to protect it's players. In an attempt to reduce long term brain injuries and make professional hockey more culturally acceptable, fighting and especially players who are primarily known for that element of the game, are being pushed out of the NHL. In a time when "enforcers" played a role in the NHL, a player would think twice about how he would go about checking an opponent because he would have to answer for his actions. Even without having to answer to an enforcer, tougher rules against fighting prevent a player from engaging an opponent who checks him illegally into a fight. Long time hockey fans believe in the theory that the game always "policed itself". Since the NHL has tried to take away any on ice justice, the evidence seems to show that illegal checking isn't being decreased. It actually seems to be going in the opposite direction.
Another problem is the equipment worn in today's NHL. Look at the gear that today's players wear. Look at what the gear players in the 1980's and even into the 1990's wore. Today's equipment looks like a suit of armor compared to the old school equipment. Of course equipment has gotten better because obviously, better equipment keeps players safer. But this also seems to be having the opposite effect on the ice. Players feel so protected now they don't think twice about slamming into an opponent at full speed. Players don't need to think twice about throwing that big check because they don't feel it like they would if they were wearing the gear of the '80's and '90's. Is today's gear too protective? Well some of this gear is the what's causing some of the injuries. The hard plastic shells on the elbow and shoulder pads are like a weapon when a player skating at a high rate of speed, makes contact with an opponents head. There have been several occasions where the NHL has regulated the size of goaltenders equipment. So why can't they regulate the type of equipment worn by forwards and defensemen?
The NHL is trying to keep it's players safe. And honestly, they've done a good job of following the NFL's lead in promoting player safety and recognizing the seriousness of concussions and head injuries. But since the league has taken away the option of players policing themselves, and since players don't seem to want to respect each other when it comes to illegal checks, maybe the only way the NHL can fix the problem is realizing that less is more. Less rules to take away from the game policing itself, and less equipment that's designed to protect players but instead is leading to more injuries. Those are the ways I see necessary to make the number of illegal checks to the head less.
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